On September 30th, Italian public opinion was stunned when a criminal court in Calabria imposed a set of ferocious prison sentences and fines on eighteen people involved in a world-famous experiment in migrant and refugee welcome, led by Domenico (“Mimmo”) Lucano over the past 20 years in the small coastal town of Riace. We are now just past the half-way point in the 90-day period in which the judges have to publish the justifications for their verdicts and sentences. Years of appeal procedure may still lie ahead, but this case has shaken public faith in Italian justice and is one of several troubling signs – also visible in the UK – that the rule of law and human rights are under threat in Europe from forces of xenophobic populism. This is the penultimate part of Giovanna Procacci’s citizen eyewitness account of this 842-day trial.
For a number of years, the little Calabrian town of Riace served as an innovative and creative site for piloting good practices in asylum and refugee welcome, providing insights and directions for the introduction, development and enhancement of welcome systems across Italy. At one point, it inspired a regional law (Regione Calabria, Law 18/2009) for “Reception of asylum seekers and refugees and social, economic and cultural development of local communities” – that is, a law intended to implement the Riace model throughout the region. But a change in political control of the regional government meant that this law was never really implemented.
If this synergy had not been broken, Riace’s innovative integration practices could have helped identify deficiencies in current welcome systems and limitations of current administrative norms. After all, for its mayor Mimmo Lucano public action always meant going beyond existing shortcomings, even challenging current rules, in the name of the higher principle of respect for people’s rights and humanity. Why did that synergy break down? What changed over the years of the Financial Police’s investigations in Riace that might help understand how it became possible to present its practices as crimes?
Starting in late 2016, partly in reaction to the pressure of large-scale new arrivals, the paradigm of Italian migration policy shifted, re-orienting itself towards expulsions of asylum seekers, refusal of rescue at sea, the policy of ‘closed ports’ and the criminalisation of solidarity. The practices of welcome and integration that until then had built a community in Riace where foreigners were not regarded as guests, but accepted as full members of the community, sharing the same needs and same destinies, suddenly came to be seen as dangerous. Pretexts were now constructed for re-categorising welcome practices as criminal offences.
We can say that the Riace integration practices were made into a crime through a sort of retroactive effect of this political change; they are kind of ‘ex-post crimes’. The narrative produced by the Prosecutor’s Office shows the traces of this strained effort to modify the signification of actions, dictated by ideas that inspired a retrospectiverewriting of their meaning. The driving impetus of the prosecution was a war of ideas against ideas. Here we touch the heart of what constitutes a political trial.
The campaign of denigration of Lucano
This paradigm shift also explains the powerful impetus invested over the last two years in the campaign of denigration of Lucano and the Riace model, as an integral part of the campaign of criminalization that led to the trial. This was a media campaign, of course, building the kind of the “mud machine” narrative that Roberto Saviano has famously discussed. Leaks of excerpts from wiretapped conversations somehow found their way to the newsdesk of a right-wing paper, Il Giornale; from there, in a blend of distorted, plausible and fake news, they spread via local media and of course the amplifiers of social media.
Lucano was depicted as having spent his exile from Riace drinking champagne, although he is a teetotaller, as having used public funds to buy new cars, as having signed false contracts with relatives and bought votes, as having used Riace as a stage set and migrants as its walk-on actors, and so on. The more one puts on the table the better; confusion is a crucial tactic for the mud machine.
From the courtroom, the prosecution contributed to the media campaign through the abundant use of wiretapped material, even where this lacked an official transcript. The prosecutors continually read out in court extracts from wiretaps, trying on this basis to harvest meanings from documentation that in itself provided no reliable evidence either of the diversion of funds or of a final unlawful beneficiary. In short, there was an impression here of a vicious circle of speculative inference, from documents to wiretaps and back again, via a process of predictive reasoning in which prior assumptions anticipate conclusions which then become inevitable.
Wiretapped evidence has a further weakness: it does not indicate whether actions which may have been discussed were actually undertaken. Lacking such evidence, the trial was liable to become a prosecution of mere intentions. As in the case of a recorded conversation (in late 2017) where Lucano talks to his brother about the idea of running for political office in the 2018 elections. On these words, the prosecution based its allegation of a political-electoral motive that might have driven Lucano to pursue policies designed to maximise voter support; this theory however leads nowhere, because Lucano decided not to run for election.
Yet this same scrap of conversation helped Il Giornale in its campaign against Lucano, who it accused of having chased a seat in the Italian Parliament in order to avoid his upcoming trial by gaining parliamentary immunity. This was particularly implausible, because even in the Spring 2019, when he was exiled from Riace and the trial about to begin, Lucano firmly resisted high-level pressures to run as a candidate for the European elections. As Roberto Saviano teaches us, the mud machine is a complicated mix of truths and lies combined in such a way to generate plausible allegations; even though at some point the fabrications are discarded, their apparent plausibility will still cause some mud to stick to the targeted person.
The language in which allegations are formulated also plays a role within the “mud machine”. The prosecution’s rhetoric uses a language which is often imprecise, it keeps repeating the same arguments, it willingly slips into insinuation, and although it is unable to prove personal profit, it does not scruple to suggest sotto voce that some benefit could still be there. For example, when Sportelli, speaking of the “savings” made by Lucano out of public funds, says things like “it is money he has not spent […] money at his disposal”, or “a clear profit, money not spent on migrants but for something else”. As though what else had been done with that money was unknown and could potentially involve some hidden personal gain. We find here the same vagueness of the talk about “doing much more” which we mentioned earlier. Confused and slippery language applied either to Riace integration activities or to Lucano himself reinforces the denigration of both.
Thus, the prosecutor’s allegations of criminal conspiracy, which are characteristic of mafia practices, in the context of the Riace experiment that had always openly challenged the power and practices of local mafia, on one side strike as particularly outrageous, and on the other side reveal the interpretative scheme holding together the prosecution’s representation of Riace. Lucano and his collaborators are supposed to have colluded in order to commit an undetermined number of crimes, which in this interpretation however take on a new consistency, that of a criminal project. To use the words of Sportelli, “for different purposes, for profit or electoral benefits, they wanted to carry out a project, which was the Riace model, born in a well intentioned way, which however gradually went astray”. A straying attributable not to mistakes, irregularities or the inability to manage migrant numbers that had grown out of all proportion, but to the collective will of a group of people, with Lucano in the lead, who would have organized themselves to carry out frauds, fakes, abuses and so on. The prosecution reads the Riace experiment as a preordained plan to divert funds and defraud the state; Sportelli feels obliged to recognise some positive effects of the project, but insists on a darker overall picture: “refugees there were treated well, but within a criminal scheme”.
Thus the two main strategies of the Prosecutor’s Office, denying the originality of Riace model of integration and denigrating the mayor who had built it, putting his creative commitment at the service of his ideals of solidarity and humanity, can be seen as two aspects of the same effort to strike at the heart of Riace.
Riace could not be seen as a laboratory of good practices, as a spotlight on system deficiencies in the organization of migrant welcome in Italy, as an example of peaceful coexistence between different communities. This understanding of Riace was no longer permitted in a political context where rage and fury against a so-called migrant invasion, threat of ethnic substitution and fabrication of enemies have become preferred strategies. In this setting, the postulate of the “criminal scheme” served to convert Riace itself into a crime.
Riace as a clientelist system
How was it possible that an acclaimed experiment in welcoming refugees, long regarded as innovative and pioneering, could itself be made into a crime? The answer was provided in the Prosecutor’s final indictment, presented on 17 May 17. This came as a real shock, above all because the Prosecutor demanded an almost eight-year prison sentence for Lucano, a penalty which seemed wholly disproportionate given the vagueness of the allegations, the lack of evidence presented in court, and the previous refutation of most of the charges by other courts. The final indictment merely reiterated the prosecution’s strategies we had seen in operation through the hearings, as though the hearing had not taken place. Neither the trial, nor the cross-examinations (involving the public collapse and retraction of the so-called ‘super-witness’ of the prosecution) and defence testimonies, nor other court judgements all favorable to Lucano, prompted the prosecution in any way to modify its original charges.
In the Prosecutor’s final indictment, the allegation of conspiracy played a pivotal role. Almost a year earlier, in July 2020, the Review Court (Tribunale del Riesame), had excluded any basis for charges of conspiracy, denied any evidence of criminal conduct by Lucano, and declared the Prosecutor’s allegations conjectural and inconsistent. Yet, in the prosecution’s final indictment and requests for conviction, the allegation of conspiracy was promoted into the basis for the criminalization of the Riace experiment in its totality.
The Prosecutor described Lucano as the head of a criminal association, together with four other defendants. A mafia-infested area such as the Locride ought to be well accustomed to recognizing the real signs of a criminal conspiracy. Yet here one finds no illegal markets, no extortion, no violence. Instead, a handful of small local voluntary associations and poorly funded cooperatives, engaged for twenty years in welcoming refugees, is accused of conspiracy; an experiment such as Riace, explicitly enacted in resistance to the ‘ndrangheta and even repeatedly attacked by the ‘ndrine, comes itself to be represented as a criminal association. Conspiracy implies intentionality, organization and planning; at the core of it, according to the Prosecutor, was Lucano’s idea that public funds brought by migrants’ welcome would make it possible to implement a local welfare regime that would assure him of popular electoral support. The welcome project had become just an excuse to secure votes in the furtherance of his own political career. He was supposed to have expanded the Riace welcome services on his own initiative, and not under institutional pressure, as had been testified to the court by officials themselves. Professor Tonino Perna, in his testimony in defense of Lucano, confirmed that he had personally witnessed a phone call from the Prefecture asking Lucano to suddenly accept 100 new refugees. The prosecution instead now claimed that “the increase in numbers was deliberate”, in so far it guaranteed a continuous flow of money, and therefore the possibility to perpetuate the clientelist system that strengthened the power of Lucano.
According to the Prosecutor, this is the essence of Lucano’s politics. In this way, the “savings” that the prosecution had made into the core of its criminal allegations through the diversion of public funds could now be connected to their supposed real motivation: they were subordinated to the aim of ensuring Lucano’s benefit in terms of electoral support. Neither the migrant and refugee integration projects that these savings were used to fund, nor their actual results and achievements, were now allowed to be taken into consideration. The commitment to welcome and integration that made Riace famous, the strategy of local development as a remedy for the curse of depopulation, the revitalization of the community through new job opportunities, even the solidarity tourism as a way of attracting people to visit this lost corner of the world – all those distinctive features of the Riace experiment were now simply obliterated.
More importantly, this scenario allowed the Prosecutor to claim that a criminal motive existed. All through the trial, the question of Lucano’s motive had been the weak point of the prosecution, given that no personal economic advantage could be proven. The political-electoral motive had already been advanced during the hearings, with little support besides the old wiretapped conversation with his brother which had been without any actual sequel. The well-being of one’s citizens ought to be a normal and legitimate preoccupation for a mayor; claiming that such a concern was in fact a criminal plan to build a personal clientele would demand at least some specific evidence, such as evidence of buying votes. No evidence of this kind was produced during the trial. To be sure, the hypothesis of a political motive has the advantage that, unlike the economic one, it does not need a material proof, the “smoking gun”, such as hidden stash of money: it might be enough to simply suggest it as a hidden intent. Yet, since Lucano had been re-elected mayor in 2014 for the legally maximum third time and could not stand again, why would he chase for votes? Since he never ran in any other electoral contest in the following years, where was the evidence for such an alleged motive?
Yet in his final indictment, the Prosecutor, while continuing at times to suggest that there was some “personal enrichment” that remained unproven, focuses on Lucano’s political career as the motive, which drives him to organize his conspiracy. Once it had been made into the keystone of the conspiracy allegation, the hypothesis of a political motive acquired a new consistency, and could now serve as the framework for reinterpreting all the Riace welcome practices. Yet claiming for instance that the communal olive oil mill was not aimed to provide job opportunities for migrants and locals, that it rather served only to consolidate local clienteles useful for electoral purposes, would require going beyond supposition, and producing evidence that the mill had been operating in this way. The same reasoning applies to all the Riace practices, from workshops to restoration, farming, collecting waste, solidarity tourism: if one does not take into account their purposes ijn terms of integration, each of these can be described as an improvement of living conditions in Riace that served the hidden plan of creating a clientele. Except that, without concrete evidence, this remains a description merely affirming a different meaning of the same practices.
At the start of the May 17 hearing, the Chief Prosecutor Luigi D’Alessio said the Locri trial had not been a political trial of the Riace model, nor a trial of the migrant welcome system, but only a trial of the misuse of public funds aimed at acquiring a political clientele. The terms of the final indictment conform to this scenario. Yet the facts and practices actually referred to here still sound the same as those Wim Wenders portrayed in 2009 in his film Il Volo, that were described in the French movie Un paese di Calabria (2016), and that everyone knew. The conspiracy allegation tries to empty these practices of their real content: the purpose of integration. In other words, it tries to change their meaning. It is like saying that migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean are your fault because you allowed refugees to land, and thus trying to redescribe rescue as disregard for human lives.
What essentially is a political trial, if not just such a clash of competing meanings?